The Triple Package: Does America Discourage Character Formation?

The Triple Package is a book about culture: it seeks to explain why certain cultural groups in the United States outperform others. It is also a book about individual character: the authors, Amy Chua (of Tiger Mother fame) and husband Jed Rubenfeld, argue that certain groups do better because their culture tends to cultivate both a drive for success and the discipline to achieve it in their members.

In our Character and Opportunity Project at Brookings, we are delving into the difficult territory of how to promote these hard-to-measure but intuitively important skills in children: the ability to stick with a task, bounce back from failure, and delay gratification today for the sake of tomorrow. So how do certain groups in the United States—like Chinese, Jews, and Nigerians—so consistently generate these character strengths in their members?

The key, according to the authors, is the Triple Package:

  1. A sense of superiority of one’s group
  2. Insecurity in oneself
  3. Impulse control

It is the combination of superiority and insecurity that creates the drive for success, and impulse control that enables the journey.

America versus the Triple Package?

As the authors point out, the elements of the Triple Package do not fit with some of the main messages that American kids grow up hearing. Superiority is not compatible with the idea that “everyone is created equal.” Insecurity is not consistent with the promotion of self-esteem, and the idea that everyone is great “just the way they are.” Impulse control is not encouraged by reminders to “live in the moment” or the idea that childhood should be fun and carefree.

Chua and Rubenfeld argue that the cultural groups who reject these American messages are now the ones most likely to achieve the American Dream. Asian American students at selective colleges report the lowest self-esteem of any racial group, but achieve the highest grades.

More than Culture Matters

There is, however, a long list of factors besides the Triple Package traits that may lead certain cultural groups to succeed more than other groups in the United States—think higher average educational attainment, more wealth, or more valuable connections upon arrival to the United States.

But if we accept the idea that the Triple Package leads to success, does this mean we should pull back on our messages of equality, self-esteem, and appreciation of today? Only if we think the Triple Package is the best path toward character development.

There is reason to be wary of the Triple Package path: growing up in a Triple Package culture can have its costs such as anxiety, guilt, prejudice, greed, or exhaustion.

So, yes: character strengths such as industriousness and prudence are vitally important for achieving upward mobility and the American Dream. But the Triple Package is not the only way to deliver them.